Simon English: Hard to take a shine to Diamond – unless he gets a handle on his bankers' bonuses
Thursday 15 December 2011
Outlook Bob Diamond is clinging on to something. It is this: the highly questionable notion that his existence is good for the rest of us. The Barclays chief executive was in front of the Treasury Select Committee again yesterday, doing his best impersonation of a respectable member of society.
Mr Diamond, pictured below, was ostensibly there to answer questions from MPs about the Independent Commission on Banking's proposed reforms to the most troublesome industry in Britain: are the reforms any good, what will they cost and, by the way, what are you lot going to pay yourselves this year?
That last issue is on Mr Diamond's mind. He'll decide in January how much Barclays is going to hand out this year to its whiz-kid bankers and traders, the geniuses who demand to be pampered.
One report has the Barclays wage and bonus bill for the year at £5bn. "Completely speculative," said Mr Diamond, though it won't be far off the pace. He knows he is under pressure to keep bonuses down, including from Bank of England's Governor Sir Mervyn King, who has had just about as much as he can stand (he's all right, is Sir Merv).
Mr Diamond says: "We have to find a balance between being responsible and being competitive. I can't just determine the compensation with no reference to what people earn at other institutions."
There's something in this, but the pressures could surely work in the other direction. If Barclays decided to slash pay, it would then become much easier for the bank next door to do the same. For some unfathomable reason, no banker seems to want to take the lead on this.
Mr Diamond's own pay is as deeply fabulous as his lustrous, jet-black hair (he looks good for 60, no question). He got £20m in 2007 alone, just as the credit crunch began to bite. His personal wealth is estimated at £95m. In fairness, that's not as much as it sounds since it leaves him a mere million pounds for every year a man of his stature can expect to live. The wife's on a right tight budget.
Here's the thing. If you ask a trader at BarCap, a guy in cufflinks on let's say £250,000 a year, if he thinks Mr Diamond is worth all that loot, you will get more vitriolic rage than most readers of this newspaper could muster. Those outside the City suspect Mr Diamond isn't worth as much as he is paid. Those inside it know for sure that he is not.
His self-worth comes partly from the oft-repeated notion that Barclays did not need a Government bailout, that it managed its own affairs so well it is entitled to pay the directors whatever it likes.
It's sort of true, but not really. Because of its size, Barclays benefits from the Too-Big-To-Fail subsidy. That's the lower interest rates it gains from due to the understanding by lenders that the Government will reimburse them if the bank goes bust.
The New Economics Foundation reckons this was worth £16bn to Barclays in 2008, £13bn in 2009, and £10bn in 2010. Its profits last year were £6bn, so without the subsidy it would have made a loss. Mr Diamond got a bonus of £6.5m for 2010. Which makes him, you could say, Britain's best-paid civil servant.
In its defence, Barclays likes to point out that it pays tax, as if obeying the law was deserving of a special merit badge. Something nearly everyone in this country instinctively understands is that if you work in plastics, you get free plastic, if you work in biscuits, you get free biscuits, and if you work in money you get free money.
If Mr Diamond showed signs of grasping this too and made a concerted effort to shove banker pay down even at the risk of losing one or two of his top guys, he could become someone to genuinely admire. How about that, sir?
Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes
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